By Prarthana Mitra
Radical feminists have always said that the personal is political.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup has proved on several occasions over the last month, that football too is about more than just the ball game. Starting from Granit Xhaka’s soaring eagle hand gesture that got Switzerland fined and nearly disqualified, to Nike revoking their shoe deal with Iran following stricter US sanctions, this has been a tournament about the nation with the best story.
But none of them have perhaps lived up to the resilience of a severely persecuted nation like Croatia, or testified to the victory of the black amidst the rouge, blanc, and bleu.
The day after Bastille Day
When France last won the World Cup in 1998, it had been the country’s first bold move towards inclusion and diversity, with the hope to purge racial insensitivity and bring an end to the slew of violent crimes committed against minorities. However, despite leading their team to a resounding victory, the socio-political situation for the black French community did not improve much.
But diversity in the team grew until players of African descent occupied most of the crucial positions in the enviable squad we saw last night.
Take Kylian Mbappé, the Best Young Player of the FIFA World 2018, for instance. “You want to troll French fascists?, wrote Grégory Pierrot in a provocative essay titled ‘Fear of a Black France.’ Tell them the truth: the most French man in the world right now is a black kid called Kylian Mbappé.
The 19-year-old, who grew up in a room full of posters of Cristiano Ronaldo, managed to snatch the crown from Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who have pursued the elusive piece of gold for years in vain. On Sunday, the Paris St-Germain forward became the second teenager to score in a World Cup final after Pele in 1958.
According to The Guardian, Mbappé was only four when he knew what he wanted and started working towards achieving this reality. Along with Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, Samuel Umtiti, N’Golo Kante, Ousmane Dembélé, Corentin Tolisso, Adil Rami and Nabil Fekir, football DNA outranked national origins once again for Les Bleus.
But does this multiracial, multi-ethnic team playing in perfect harmony serve as a model, an inspiration, a sign for a country driven by divides over race and religion? Slate thinks that the beautiful vision does not exist. Racial crimes remain contentious to the liberal image we have of the French to this day. Earlier this year, a Jewish woman was brutally murdered in Paris in a horrific demonstration of anti-Semitism. Only a few months back, France was accused of illtreating immigrant children at the border. French President Emmanuel Macron, who celebrated with the team last night, also signed a deal with the EU to tighten border security, extinguishing that dream for the next Pogba or Mbappé.
The Croatian cause that won hearts
For Croatia, a nation of only four million, the path to making good on that dream was beset with a mighty French defence that rained on their parade and resulted in granting the first own goal in a World Cup final. Many from the team may not have deserved to be on the side that concedes four goals after such a rigorous campaign throughout the tournament. Luka Modri? certainly did not.
Arguably the world’s best midfielder right now, one look at Modri? collecting the Golden Ball would tell you that he wasn’t there for it. On the eve of the final, journalist Boris Starling penned his thoughts about the Croatian team and its captain, along with the story of Modri?’s difficult childhood amidst an economic and political upheaval in his country, then under a Serbian siege.
Starling also mentioned the unforgettable moment in football history when Yugoslavian footballer Zvonimir Boban stood up to riot police in 1990, dispatching a left-legged shot at their shins and refusing to apologise for it. Expelled from the national team, he then embraced his Croatian roots and captained his team to finish third place at the World Cup eight years later. Modri?’s team has done one better; his marvelous control over time and space coupled with Mario Manduki?, Ivan Rakiti? and Domagoj Vida’s performances raised and then dashed, the hopes of a proud people forged in war.
A hard rain’s gonna fall
As if there wasn’t enough political hangover already, performance artists representing the Russian radical feminist group Pussy Riot invaded the pitch in the second half to protest against illegal detention and wrongful sentencing of political prisons and Putin opponents. While football fans can crib all they want about the disruption, there’s no denying that choosing the world’s biggest platform to demonstrate against human rights violations is a powerful move.
The presentation ceremony too had its own bit of drama when it started raining and Putin was the only one offered an umbrella, while President of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovi? and Macron got drenched. The peculiar lack of hospitality on the podium raised eyebrows and resurrected Putin memes, with many calling it a power move.
For what it’s worth, these stories may not amount to much to football pundits (the same who were ready to dismiss Croatia’s prowess in the semis), but together, they make for a historic World Cup that we will talk about for generations.
Football cannot be the instant cure to society’s evils; it is more than about kindling far-fetched fantasies. National recognition and an international platform can give gifted young people from marginalised nations a reason to believe in their dreams. It can also help further the dream of an inclusive future where stories like theirs find representation in the beautiful game.
So as the wait for 2022 begins, let’s thank the two nations which have done the game and their stories proud.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius